Okinawa and China interpretation of the UNCLOS as part of a grand strategy

                                                   by Philippe Valdois 


Okinawa has long been at the center of the 1960 U.S.-Japan Security Treaty, and since the decision by the Obama administration to implement a Pacific pivot or rebalancing, even if not the only place concerned by the building of American military assets in the region, it will play a growing role. This might be of concern to China due to the geographical situation of the Okinawa prefecture and the fact that, since 1972, this same treaty includes the Senkaku (Diaoyu Islands) because of the Article 5.  In the following essay I will briefly talk about Okinawa history, its geostrategic importance, describing in particular how the Okinawa Reversion Treaty of 1971, or “Treaty Between Japan and the United States of America Concerning the Ryukyu Islands and the Daito Islands”, applies to the Senkakus (Diaoyu Islands). I chose not to expand on the details of the well-documented recent developments related to the anticipated transfer of Marines to Guam or the transfer of Futenma Marine Corps air station to another part of Okinawa, the deployment of the Osprey transport aircraft or the military exercises taking place this Autumn of 2013, but to talk more in depth about the perception many analysts have of China’s own plans in relation to the waters surrounding the Senkakus (Diaoyu) and Okinawa in East China Sea, focusing on legal aspects (in particular related to the law of the sea) also pertaining to South China Sea territorial claims. This should help us understand better the extent and nature of present and future misunderstandings.Okinawa Prefecture is located in the southernmost part of the Japanese Archipelago. It is also the southern half of the Nansei Shoto, a 1200 km stretch of islands extending from Kyushu to Yonaguni Island. Shanghai, Taipei, Hong Kong, Manila and Tokyo are all situated less than 1500 km from Naha, the seat of the Okinawa prefectural government, where we can also find the main commercial airport. There are 48 inhabited islands with the island of Okinawa accounting for 53% of the prefecture’s area. The total population of the prefecture is approximately 1.31-million. Okinawa Island alone has approximately 1.15-million residents. 14 U.S. military bases occupy 18% of the main island. As we will see, the proximity of those bases to densely populated areas has created a dangerous situation.Regarding the terms of the Treaty of 1971, in relation to the Senkaku (Diaoyu) issue, we find a clear expose of the United-States position of neutrality, that I will quote in part, in the January 22, 2013 Congressional Research Service report on Senkaku (Diaoyu/Diaoyutai) Islands Dispute: U.S. Treaty Obligations, by Mark E. Manyin  (p. 5) 

During Senate deliberations on whether to consent to the ratification of the Okinawa Reversion Treaty, the State Department asserted that the United States took a neutral position with regard to the competing claims of Japan, China, and Taiwan, despite the return of the islets to Japanese administration. Department officials asserted that reversion of administrative rights to Japan did not prejudice any claims to the islets. When asked by the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee how the Okinawa Reversion Treaty would affect the determination of sovereignty over the Senkakus (Diaoyu/Diaoyutai), Secretary of State William Rogers answered that “this treaty does not affect the legal status of those islands at all.”

This position of neutrality has been restated in recent years but the inclusion of the islands in the Reversion Treaty makes Article II of the Treaty also applicable to the islets, and although Japan is primarily responsible for its own defense, the United States are obligated to defend Japan including the islets.No discussion about Okinawa would be complete without mentioning the local population and its relation to the military. Over the years, as I was able to see with my own eyes, and learn through discussions with Okinawans, an economic interdependency has developed between the U.S. forces and the local population, in particular around the bases. However, let’s not forget that the peaceful nature of the Islanders, who had to suffer greatly during the 82-day Battle of Okinawa (early April until mid-June 1945) at the hands of the hard-line Japanese military forces, being pressed into service, driven to suicide, starved or used as human shields, did not mean there were no tensions before the reversion. As an example, the Koza riot occurred on the night of December 20, 1970. The violent clashes between roughly 5000 Okinawans and 700 American MPs resulted in many injured and extensive damages, including inside Kadena Air Base. This was the product of anger against 25 years of occupation and the exemption from Okinawan justice of servicemen involved in accidents, under the standard status of forces. In fact, it could be seen as a prelude to the reactions of the population, faced with the numerous accidents and crimes which in the past few years have affected the relations between the US forces and the residents. 

A non-official source, the Institute for Policy Studies gives the following numbers: From 1972, the year of the reversion, to the end of December 2008, there have been 1,434 incidents and accidents related to military exercises including 487 airplane-related accidents. During the same period, there were 5,584 criminal cases involving US military personnel, including 559 cases of murder, burglary and rape. A number, which might be much higher if we consider sexual and violent cases, not reported. It is also not be forgotten that the revisionism at work since the end of World War Two at the highest level of the Japanese government has also been criticized internally by citizens and scholars like the late Saburo Ienaga. A parallel might in fact be drawn between the outrage expressed by foreign countries regarding Japanese history textbooks’ contents and the ongoing disagreement between Okinawa’s local government and Japan’s national government regarding the position of the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, a disagreement which has involved Nobel Prize-winning novelist Kenzaburo Oe, who defended successfully in court his statement that Japanese soldiers had ordered civilians in Okinawa to commit mass suicide and murder-suicide in 1945. 

Unfortunately, the lack of interest for Okinawa, apart from the role it plays in the U.S.-Japan alliance, also expresses itself in the promotion of Okinawa’s economic development under the national government’s own terms and without taking into account the particularism of Okinawa. The Japan Ministry of foreign Affairs in its own website recognizes that: “Ryukyuan trade during the Sho Dynasties revolved around tributary trade with China begun during the Sanzan Period. Ryukyuans also acted as agents for vigorous transit trade with Japan and the Korean Peninsula to the north, and Siam, Malacca and Luzon to the south, among others. Foreign trade was the foundation of the Ryukyu Kingdom economy.”

However, to experience prosperity again, the prefecture should implement infrastructure projects conceived to facilitate trade expansion and access to the huge Chinese market. This is necessary to convince Japanese manufacturers to build factories in the prefecture. As Yan Shenghe says, the Japanese government has not approved of setting up a Chinese consulate in Okinawa, forcing local Chinese to fly to Fukuoka, a thousand kilometers away, to deal with relevant business. 

Before going to the legal and diplomatic matters related to the Law of the Sea, at the root of the problem which is the central theme of this essay, I would like to mention another matter which is dear to the Okinawans and has an impact on the future of the prefecture. It concerns the recent efforts by the Abe government to secure amendments to the war-renouncing Constitution of Japan.   In a joint statement issued October 3 in Tokyo by Secretary of State Kerry, Secretary of Defense Hagel, Minister for Foreign Affairs Kishida, and Minister of Defense Onodera, it is mentioned that “(Japan) is re-examining the legal basis for its security including the matter of exercising its right of collective self-defense, expanding its defense budget, reviewing its National Defense Program Guidelines, strengthening its capability to defend its sovereign territory, and broadening regional contributions, including capacity-building efforts vis-à-vis Southeast Asian countries. The United States welcomed these efforts and reiterated its commitment to collaborate closely with Japan.” 

As Colonel Ann Wright writes, this is a way to say that the Obama administration wants Japan to “re-examine” the legal basis for Article Nine of its war-renouncing Constitution. In this same article, the author describes the military assets being deployed around the Pacific, including the long-range Global Hawk, an unmanned aerial surveillance aircraft, in Japan. She also gives a comparative assessment of the military budgets and equipment of the United States and China based in part on the Military Strength Comparisons published on as a way to debunk the fear- inducing statements regarding the danger Chinese military assets in their actual form might pose to the region.However, we should now mention the international community’s position and see how it differs from the position of the Chinese government regarding China’s territorial and maritime ambitions, and why. 

China and the sea

The perception of many foreign experts and the public at large regarding the PRC’s territorial ambitions has been in general one of suspicion, if not fear. Those feelings are not to be seen as a mere echo of sensationalist medias but are based on concrete evidence, starting with the repeated efforts by Beijing to “clarify” legal issues pertaining to the exclusive economic zone (EZZ), most Chinese experts aligning themselves to the Party line, like Dr. Ren Xiaofeng and Senior Colonel Cheng Xizhong in 2004, in “A Chinese Perspective, China Institute for International Strategic Studies”, although the terms of the law of the sea regarding military activities in the EEZ had already been made clear in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea  (UNCLOS). Many observers see these efforts we will analyze as destabilizing.  

China has to awake to the realization it is entirely zone-locked by other countries’ EEZs, and if those countries were to exert the same type of control China is trying to implement in its own EEZ, China would not be able to enter the open sea without the consent of neighboring countries. The signing in 2002 of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Declaration of the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea was a step in the right direction, and China agreeing this year to hold “consultations” with the ASEAN on a code of conduct for disputes in the South China Sea is a sign of hope, but some diplomats and analysts, in particular in South-East Asia seem to think that China is in fact aiming to drag the talks out while consolidating its maritime claims. In fact, China has until now resisted discussing the territorial issue with the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or addressing the issue in public forums, preferring to settle disputes in the South China Sea through negotiations with individual claimants. This plays in the favor of China, which has the capacity to dictate its exigencies. This reinforces a measure of goodwill towards the United States which is pushing for multilateral talks as a way for small countries to be able to resist the economic and political pressures that would occur if China were to negotiate with individual countries. Washington, in July 2010, through its Secretary of State at the time Hillary Clinton, had already challenged Beijing to participate in multilateral dialogue without success. Also, the United States’ constant advocacy of freedom of navigation makes their naval presence less a threat than a protective presence against regional territorial ambitions, even if Washington, as we have seen, has also adopted a policy of not siding with any party regarding territorial claims, promoting instead the adherence to the existing international treaties and the peaceful resolution of dissensions by legal means. In fact, if we were to make an analogy between the South China Sea and the Mediterranean Sea, we could imagine what would happen if any country in this sea surrounded by three continents decided to exert a control over the free passage and activities of military ships by claiming they might conduct activities contrary to their “indisputable rights”. An article published on on October 26, 2010 was titled: “China opposes any military acts in exclusive economic zone without permission.” However, “… PRC naval units routinely conduct submarine operations, military survey operations, and surveillance/intelligence-collection operations in foreign EEZs throughout the Asia-Pacific region.” Similarly, the Chinese navy, in mid-2013, had acknowledged conducting patrols inside the U.S.’s EEZ, without any interference from the US navy. 

Closer to Okinawa, in the East China Sea, we can observe repeated attempts by China to expand its EEZ. On May 11, 2009, for example, China submitted a 17-page “Preliminary Information Indicative of the Outer Limits of the Continental Shelf Beyond 200 Nautical Miles of the People’s Republic of China” to the Division for Ocean Affairs and the Law of the Sea at the UN, which was answered by a laconic Note Verbale from the Permanent Mission of Japan to the United Nations stating that ” It is indisputable that the establishment of the outer limits of the continental shelf beyond 200 nautical miles in an area comprising less than 400 nautical miles and subject to the delimitation of the continental shelf between the States concerned cannot be accomplished under the provisions of the Convention.”

Territorial claims by China are numerous, but what might exacerbate the unease of most countries in the region is the fact that the restrictive maritime laws advocated by China are part of a clearly defined strategy, adopted in 2003 by the Chinese Communist Party and the Central Military Commission under the name of “Three Warfares”, or san zhong zhanfa, composed of psychological, media and legal “warfares”. For example, by trying to influence scholars, create dissensions and promote a redefinition of concepts included in treaties and other legal instruments China had itself signed, Beijing hopes to shape international opinion in its favor. It is then not surprising that the quasi-majority of scholars and journalists, as we have mentioned previously are in lockstep. In fact as the “2009 Report to Congress of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission” mentions on page 289: 

Additionally, the Chinese government seeks to shape opinion in elite policy-making circles by influencing the commentary about China and U.S.-China relations that emerges from U.S. academics and think tanks. This effort includes giving rewards to ”friendly” scholars, such as preferred access to career enhancing interviews and documents, as well as taking punitive actions, such as visa denials, for academics who anger the authorities. These rewards and punishments offer the Chinese government leverage over the careers of foreign scholars and thereby encourage a culture of academic self-censorship. By influencing scholars, these actions also shape analysis and public understanding of China.”

It is becoming evident that the rebalancing is done not only by the United States but is gaining support from many countries of the region which are doing their own balancing by “developing the components of an ‘anti-access/area-denial’ (A2/AD) capability to offset China’s impressive regional maritime build-up”. It is possible the Three Wars strategy will attain some measure of success. However, most of the press articles and essays, found via an Internet search focused on EEZs and China, signal the failure of the Chinese expansion strategy. It might be time for China to consider its geographic position and take into account the perverse effects a divisive strategy; exaggerated territorial claims (especially coming simultaneously, encouraging a Forbes magazine contributor to title his op-ed “China And The Biggest Territory Grab Since World War II”) might produce.  Nationalism is not a vision in itself and can in fact blind policy-makers to the reality of a world in constant evolution. Thinking and planning a virtual domination over the area by 2050 by denying foreign military vessels and aircraft access to its EEZ while exposing itself to retaliation by countries, in Africa and elsewhere, is apt to develop enough in the next 20 years or so to advance their own claims and adopt the same restrictive definitions of EEZ and free passage, is not a good idea. Also, internal restrictions on the circulation of information might make it difficult for Chinese policy-makers to anticipate or even imagine how much of their strategy and plans are exposed in foreign medias, a strategy definitely interpreted as nothing but aggressive by most foreign observers. An example could be the suggestion, contrary to all what China stands for (as an anti-colonialism force), offered by a Chinese military official to the Commander of the U.S. Pacific Command in 2009, to split the Pacific Ocean and the Indian Ocean into two spheres of influence and control them respectively under China and the U.S. This was rejected and China claimed it was a joke. Joke or not, it might have made many countries in the region cringe!

However, not everything is intimidation and coercive diplomacy in this game. Many efforts are made to develop mutual trust at various levels. Actually, according to James Kraska, who quoted also the above-mentioned incident, Chinese officials had told their American counterparts in private that they understood Beijing’s expansive claims over the EEZ were not consistent with UNCLOS, while saying they viewed military activities and reconnaissance flights as “impolite”. James Kraska continues with the following analogy to describe the Chinese view: “It may be lawful to peer into the window of someone else’s house, but it is going to make them very uncomfortable.”

Cultural understanding might be a step towards more courteous exchanges. It is however very improbable, seeing the utmost priority being given to the survival of the Communist Party and those whose power depends on its continuity, that the most reasonable voices will feel encouraged to abandon nationalism as a social unifying tool, even if keeping it alive for a later use means amplifying the risks of war as was recently seen when China for a time went so far as claiming ownership of Okinawa in early 2013.  




[1] Military policeman’s ‘hobby’ documented 1970 Okinawa rioting”, The Japan times, December 17, 2011


[1] Court sides with Oe over mass suicides, The Japan Times, March 29, 2008

[1] Okinawa’s future lies in Chinese tourists, not Philippine experiences, Global Times, September 23, 2013


[1] America’s Military Pivot to Asia: Obama Wants Japan to be “Able to Wage War” against China, Global Research, November 08, 2013


[1] last modified in July 2012

[1] Financial times. com June 2, 2013, Chinese navy begins US economic zone patrols, by Kathrin Hille in Singapore




[1] Maritime Power and the Law of the Sea, Oxford University Press, 2011